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From the Trenches

Treason, Plot, and Witchcraft

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, February 09, 2015

Trenches-England-WitchcraftRemember, remember, the fifth of November.” In one of the United Kingdom’s largest and most historic homes, archaeologists have found a lingering memory of the paranoia and angst that followed the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Robert Catesby and a group of Catholic conspirators (including Guy Fawkes) attempted to blow up both houses of Parliament and kill the Protestant King James I.

 

Six-hundred-year-old Knole House in Kent was then owned by Thomas Sackville, Lord Treasurer. Sackville was having the home renovated to host the king himself, work that included creating the “Upper King’s Room,” where the monarch would have stayed (but never actually did). As part of a five-year project of study and conservation, researchers recently pulled up floorboards in the room and found what are known as apotropaic marks—also called “witchmarks” or “demon traps.” These crosshatch patterns had been carved into beams around the fireplace and under the floor by the craftsmen working on the room, as protection for the royal occupant from witchcraft and demonic possession. Tree-ring dating of the beams reveals that the marks were made just months after the Gunpowder Plot had been foiled.

 

In the hysteria that followed the plot, accusations of witchcraft and demonic activity were common, fueled in part by James’ demonization of Catholics and his interest in the supernatural. Two years earlier he passed a law imposing death for those engaging in witchcraft, and had once written a book, Daemonologie, supporting witch-hunting. According to James Wright of Museum of London Archaeology, which is working on the project, “These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early seventeenth century.”

Shackled for Eternity

By JASON URBANUS

Monday, February 09, 2015

Trenches-France-Shackle-Burial

Archaeologists have recently uncovered a large Gallo-Roman necropolis in southwest France. Located just 800 feet from the Roman amphitheater in Saintes, the cemetery may have been the final resting place for many of the arena’s victims. Several hundred graves dating to the first and second centuries A.D. were found, including many double burials, in which two bodies were interred in one trench, lying head to foot. The archaeologists also excavated at least five individuals—four adults and one child—who were still wearing riveted iron shackles around their wrists, necks, or legs. The graves were almost entirely devoid of artifacts, except for that of a young child who was buried with coins on his or her eyes and seven small vases.

How to Eat a Shipwreck

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Monday, February 09, 2015

Trenches-Shipwreck-WormsThe family of mollusks known as shipworms are sometimes referred to as the “termites of the sea” because they bore through and eat submerged wood, including shipwrecks. Actual termites are able to digest wood because bacterial communities in their guts generate enzymes that break down wood fibers. But in a number of shipworm species, the cecum, or intestinal structure where they digest wood, doesn’t have a bacterial community to help out. Researchers have now found the missing microbes—living in specialized cells in shipworms’ gills. “I would say that this finding likely extends to many species,” says Dan Distel of the Northeastern University Marine Science Center. Useful enzymes then migrate to the cecum—scientists don’t know how just yet—where they break wood down into nutritious sugars, sugars that the shipworms then don’t have to share with a community of gut bacteria. This is the first time such an arrangement has been observed in the animal kingdom.

Tomb of the Jealous Dog

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, February 09, 2015

China-Tomb-Jealous-Dog

Archaeologists have uncovered a Liao Dynasty (A.D. 907–1125) brick tomb in Datong City in northern China’s Shanxi Province. The tomb had been looted, but only valuable, portable artifacts were taken, which left its remarkable wall paintings intact. The murals cover more than 160 square feet and depict constellations, wooden architecture, travel, and daily life. One panel shows servants standing around an empty bed while a cat plays with a silk ball and a dog, to the right, looks on, perhaps a bit jealously.

New Mosaics at Zeugma

By JARRETT A. LOBELL

Monday, February 09, 2015

Trenches-Turkey-Zeugma-Mosaics

Continuing excavations in the House of the Muses at Zeugma in southeastern Turkey have uncovered even more spectacular Roman mosaics, as well as more of the house’s well-preserved architecture. In one of the newly discovered rooms, archaeologists uncovered a mosaic pavement depicting four young women framed by elaborate patterns. Although not identified by any inscriptions, the women may represent heroines from Greek mythology.

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